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Dragon Boats draw record crowd to Flushing Meadows

Hundreds raced in large wooden boats to the sound of beating drums while thousands watched the races, enjoyed dancing and music, ate Chinese food, and even made crafts at the 20th Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival Saturday and Sunday.

Henry Wan, chairman of the festival, said both the crowd, which he estimated to be around 60,000, and the teams, numbering more than 150, were of record numbers for the festival.

“The field is packed. The bus is packed. Everything is packed,” he said.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the event, which originally took place on the Hudson River before moving to Meadow Lake. But dragon boat racing itself, in which teams race 40- to 100-foot-long ships across the lake as drummers on the boats keep time, has the basis in an ancient legend. The Chinese poet Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Ni Lo River after hearing the kingdom he had been banished from, Chu, had been invaded. According to legend, the fishermen in the nearby countryside rowed their wooden boats to try to rescue him. When that failed and Yuan perished, the fishermen threw rice dumplings in the river and beat drums so the fish would not eat his body.

“It’s very different from the [typical] American encounter,” said Corona resident Nancy Ho, 29, as she watched the races. “It’s very different from what we see every day.”

Wan said the festival offers “something for everybody.”

For racers like Sunnyside resident Han Lee, 32, who has been coming to the festival for four years and raced with the Xtremeny Dragon Boat Crew, dragon boat races are a chance to work out and meet lots of people.

“It’s also hard to find a water sport in New York,” Lee said.

Middle Village resident Silvia Lee, 23, who rowed with J.P. Morgan Chase Dragon Boats, said she also liked the team aspect.

“If you don’t paddle to the full extent you can ... you’re kind of like dead weight,” Silvia Lee said.

Betty Chan, treasurer of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, which races in the event, agreed.

“Dragon boats is not about how powerful a person is,” Chan said. “It’s about being in synch.”

The New York DCH Dragon Boat Club, a corporate dragon boat racing team for motor vehicle service company Dah Chong Hong Holdings Limited, was the big winner at the festival. DCH won in both the 250-meter and 500-meter races in the mixed division, as well as the 500-meter race in the mixed division, meaning it came in No. 1 overall in both divisions. The team also came in second in the 250-meter open division, as well as second in the 250-meter women’s division and third in the 500-meter women’s division, meaning it came second overall for the women’s division.

Another big winner at the festival was Metro Athletic Dragons. MAD came in second place in both mixed division races and the 500-meter open division, meaning it came in second overall for both divisions. It also placed first in the 250-meter division. The winners of both women’s division races was the Mississauga Canoe Club, which also meant it won overall in the women’s division.

Rashida Lloyd, who came up from East Windsor, N.J., to visit the festival, said she liked how the races were side-by-side with other festival offerings. She also was pleased that the cultural performances — which encompassed acts such as dancers like Colorful Folk Dance, martial artists like Shaolin Kung Fu and musicians like Dana Leong and His Music — encompassed both Asian and non-Asian influences.

“So far I’m happy with what I see,” Lloyd said.

Some of the festival offerings were smaller, however. The booth for FUSIA Communications Inc., taught children aged 5 to 8 Chinese painting, Chinese paper cutting and how to fold origami paper boats.

“They like it very much,” Webbi Huang, a volunteer with FUSIA, said. “There are so many kids here.”

Wan said the festival is always looking to get bigger and better every year, and he thanked everyone for their support.

“It’s a cultural event. It’s a sporting event. It’s a colorful event, no matter which way you look at it,” he said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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